The global threat to free media: Four ways journalism gets BLOC’d

May 9, 2018
Category: Newsletters

In terms of reporting on the news of state, it used to be that there were journalists,  government spokespersons, and maybe, in between, public relations folk. There were clear demarcations between them.

Now, the lines are blurred.

As journalists, society’s eminent storytellers, lose their jobs and their industry implodes, the privilege of whom actually gets to tell the story, to articulate immanence, is up for grabs. Governments, like corporations, have found ways to game the vacuum, ensuring their agendas and narratives are secured, unfiltered and unexamined, in the vaults of public fact. As a result, the ability of global citizens to make informed decisions is severely impaired.

There are four basic ways this is being done, which we’ll examine below.

B: BULLY THE MEDIA – TURKEY

If Josef K, Kafka’s semi-autobiographical protagonist in “The Trial” were alive today, he may well live in Turkey. Here, journalists are constantly hounded, and the very nature of their craft is battered within an inch of its life by an omnipotent state apparatus.

Ever the strategist, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has gone through a number of stages, corresponding to many of forms of control at different times.

As such, the march to intimidation has been incremental. The latest phase started around May 2013 when citizens in Istanbul took to the streets to vent about an omnibus of concerns, centering on the planned development of the much-loved district of Gezi Park.

A process of state propaganda ensued, which saw Erdogan’s deep state apparatus swing into action to limit the fallout of his crackdown on the Gezi Park protesters. This counter-campaign was further prompted by claims of high level corruption in his avowedly “anti-corruption” government.  

Initially, Turkish media barely reported the protestsone famous example was when one large TV station, cowed by the state, was running a documentary on penguins while CNN International in Turkey was showing the protests in all their drama. Such gaps in news dispersal have prompted many Turks to get their news on social media.

As a result, the country has become one of the leading users of mainstream social media platforms in the world (and the government has become the world’s leading Twitter blocker.)

The conglomerate model of Turkish media, whereby major media companies such as Dogan Holding had numerous cross-sector interests, saw many editors pulling material critical of Erdogan and his AKP party, lest it impact on these delicately balanced business portfolios. Clearly a co-opted industry.

As editors acquiesced, things got even worse for journalists.

Noted in the pre-Erdogan era for its feisty media, Turkey has seen its journalistic and editorial culture become severely constrained in the past decade. Mere co-option has morphed into an even uglier model of intimidation.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ annual survey, Turkey has more journalists in prison than any other country. The CPJ report, published in December 2017, counted 73 journalists in prison in Turkey. All, said the report, are “under investigation for, or charged with, anti-state crimes.”

The CPJ admits its own figures may even be on the conservative side, noting, “other press freedom groups using a different methodology have higher numbers.” The “Free Turkey Journalists” organization, for instance, more than doubles this number, recording 151 currently in state detention at the time of writing this article.

Indeed, the figure is likely over 1,000 if citizen reporters and commentators online are included.

The strategy of intimidation is creating a widespread crisis of self-censorship among journalists in Turkey, in a situation one advocacy group suggests is a modern version of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon.

It’s likely President Erdogan would approve of such an analogy.

L: LAMPOON THE MEDIA – UNITED STATES

There can be no doubt that the ascendency of Donald Trump has changed the dynamic between the media and the White House. While the relationship has never been entirely cozy, there has been something of a quid pro quo arrangement whereby each party agreed that they need the other. Access for media and coverage for the presidency are the rewards.

Things began to get skewed during candidate Trump’s nomination. News media became obsessed with Trump’s outrageous throwaways, strewn about like chicken feed, which were enthusiastically consumed by an ever-increasing range of media outlets.

No one ever thought Trump would win anything and the consensus appears to have been that he provided a bit of comic relief in the usually dour election process.

Somewhere along the line, something shifted, and as the Trump team realized a miracle was in the offing, the media became a target rather than a partner. Whether this was pure strategy or just the Trump team’s bull-headed approach, the media was soon ducking and weaving, and floundering, as it sought to fight back.

As president, Trump soon upped the anti-media ante by such moves as opening up the White House press briefings to comparatively marginal (alt-right) outlets, and ignoring questions from major media to take “Dorothy Dix” questions from the newcomers.

The implication was that mainstream news media was not relevant. Given the struggles many news media outlets have faced, as advertising has drained to the internet and as social media groups sucked up their content without compensation, their business models were under pressure. The “not relevant” line was hard to argue.

Another tactic was to subvert the media cycle by taking to Twitter to announce new policy or to bloviate opinions on the run.

This attack has been both institutional and personal, making fun of media and its protagonists with equal opportunity abuse. Trump’s casting of media as a running joke has worked to take media out of the picture and give the electorate direct access to the White House with an added sense of faux exclusivity.

If nothing else, it gets Trump ahead of the now critical media curve.

The effect of Trump’s Twitter barrage has also been to saturate the news landscape. News media, encumbered by a culture of fact-checking and objectivity, has reeled in the tsunami of raw, spontaneous and often false news data emerging on the president’s social media handle.

The ultimate impact has been the quantification of fact – the bigger the mouth, the more likely its output will be taken as true – and the de-contextualization of news narratives.

is his 1985 book “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” media thinker Neil Postman compared the politics of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley: “Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”

It’s doubtful Donald Trump has read Huxley (much less Orwell), but he is embodying his prediction so well, it is as if he has taken it as his script.

O: OWN THE MEDIA – CHINA

In China, there are, effectively no free and independent media outlets. The state — that is, the Communist Party of China — has owned all the major news outlets since 1949.

Since the late ‘80s, however, and the introduction of market reforms, private media outlets have been given space. They are given a long rein by the state media regulator in certain areas — sports and entertainment being two categories where it is pretty much open season — as long as these outlets steer clear of critical news and touchy subjects like the legitimacy of the ruling communist party, or the views of the Dalai Lama.

Transgressions are met with swift and often fairly clunky state censorship.

The increase in external media seeking access to the China market has been either blocked by the Great Firewall, which, despite tentative developments has already defeated Google, or has been openly shaped by the state censors.

One recent example is Australia’s publicly funded broadcaster, the ABC. In 2014, the ABC gained a ground-breaking foothold to deliver news and other media into China. In 2016, the organization admitted to editorial changes that were acquiescent to the Chinese state. It said at the time these edits were in error.

Recently, the ABC announced the closure of its international service.

According to Australian academic John Fitzgerald, even media produced in Australia for Australian audiences is censored by the Chinese government, as Australian outlets are obliged to go via Chinese state-censored social media platforms like Weibo and We Chat. He writes,  “the Chinese government’s power over those platforms means that sensitive posts, including those of the ABC and (other public broadcaster) SBS, are regularly censored or removed.”

If it’s not direct ownership of the outlet, therefore, its ownership of the narrative.

Such tactics generally result in the government line being pretty much the only line.

This was exemplified in the recent announcement that Premier Xi Jinping was to seek reforms that would make him leader for life, at the upcoming Party Congress.

The issue was buried at Item 14 on the Congress agenda and was largely ignored by news media. The whole agenda was reported on as a whole, but the big ticket item — the intended abolishment of term limits — was, well, a classic case, as Al-Jazeera’s media analyst Richard Gizborne argued, of “burying the lede.”

Oddly for contemporary China, the agenda was also not published in English as well as Mandarin.

Finally, many high profile foreign media outlets were banned from the Congress’ news conference.

So, not only are people not entirely aware of the reform — if they do know about it, in bits and pieces — they are well aware that the media’s treatment of it affirms that talking about it is not allowed anyway.

Thus, debate on what many are seeing as perhaps the most significant political reform in China in decades, is taken away from news media and effectively killed.

C: CO-OPT THE MEDIA – ISRAEL

The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) is a unique institution. Born of a violent nation-building/taking (depending on your perspective) process and buffered by potential/imagined enemies on all sides, the IDF is seen by most Israelis as an untouchable pillar in the security obsessed nation.

This view is certainly shared by most news outlets in Israel.

Israeli news media operates under colonial legislation that dates back to the British Mandate period. Application of the controversial Defense (Emergency) Regulations, established in 1945, have been called a version of martial law.

These laws are used in deciding upon applications of new media entries, which must receive state permission to operate legally.

These laws are also fashioned to apply state-of-emergency procedures to media reporting, censoring material that is deemed a risk to public safety.

Criticism of the IDF falls very easily and often into this broad space of illegality.

Israel’s system of army reserves means many journalists are actually in the army. Many media professionals also got a start in the widely broadcast army media services.

It all adds up to the army being somewhat untouchable in media terms.

One case highlights this in action.

Ahed Tamimi has captured headlines for many reasons, notwithstanding her blue-eyed, wild blonde-haired appearance as a Palestinian — a racial coloration that seems to have unsettled many.

That a teenage girl lashing out at two bored looking IDF personnel was deemed worthy of blanket headlines in Israel and in pro-Israel media, even as the brutal blockade and daily mistreatment of Palestinians by the same IDF is unmentioned, should tell us something about how Israeli media operates.

Coverage of Tamimi’s actions presented an opportunity for media commentators to query what role Israeli soldiers have in confronting children in the first place.  It was a moment missed.

Two strategies rolled out through pro-Israel media when the video went viral.

One, the earliest reaction, and one well in line with Israel’s knee jerk support for the IDF, was to praise the soldiers in question for not fighting back.

Then, once the IDF and its media foghorns gathered themselves, the strategy shifted to attacking and undermining the girl in question, and her family, thus shifting the debate away from the IDF entirely.

It was a classic co-option pincer move.  

Indeed, the Israeli military has been working hard on its PR strategies for some time. Recently, it announced a refurbishment of its already ultra-powerful media profile.

It has launched the Orwellian sounding “Center for Consciousness Operations” (perhaps it sounds less creepy in Hebrew) which is based on a concept cultivated by former Military Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon, called “cognitive etching.”

In launching this body, an information paper argues that the IDF is creating “another combat arena beyond the classic kinetic arenas.”

Mapping the landscape

These four BLOC points tend not to operate in isolation. In each country above, other elements of the BLOC playbook are often utilized. The examples here are meant as indicators not as definitive categorizations.

As such, each of the four points here elicits a slightly different response, as a means of wresting back momentum for quality media and responsible narratives of now.

Combinations of the BLOC model require calibrated counters, specific to each environment.

Re-gaining the ground for media freedom worldwide will require a finely tuned approach, referring perhaps to these broad categorizations.

We are living at a time when the value of truth is being tested and its very substance is being nimbly manipulated. To know just how the media that is responsible for transmitting the narratives of truth is being challenged and undermined – BLOC’d – is surely an important foundation for countering these trends.  

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